The Glorious Madness of Ken Schaffer
Eccentric inventor Ken Schaffer is one of the unsung heroes of classic rock. JESSE FINK caught up with him in New York City.
‘I looooove Ken Schaffer!’ booms David Krebs, former manager of Aerosmith and AC/DC, over the phone from Malibu. ‘He’s a genius kind of guy.’
Such a genius that Schaffer once hooked up Krebs’s star client, Steven Tyler, the lead singer of Aerosmith, to some electrodes to get him off heroin. He was paid $5000 for his trouble.
‘I thought was a great idea,’ sighs Krebs, ‘but it didn’t work.’
Schaffer remembers slightly differently when I meet him in the mid-Manhattan penthouse he’s owned since the 1970s.
‘I got Steven off of dope with an invention of mine that cures junkies. He used to sit here for two weeks for an hour a day with electrodes dangling off his ears. They thanked me on the Best Of Aerosmith album, but they spelled my last name wrong, the fucking assholes,’ he laughs.
In the same apartment, Schaffer entertained Angus Young of AC/DC.
‘Angus, on his first tour, with [then AC/DC manager] Michael Browning, they used to hang out here. Angus spent a fair amount of time here.’
So much so that Browning tried to get an apartment on the same floor. There’s a framed photograph of Angus with Schaffer in a glass cabinet where he keeps his most precious items.
Schaffer’s relationship with Angus was ‘like an older brother kind of thing, something like that… it was nice’.
Angus used Schaffer’s most famous invention, a wireless transmitter called the Schaffer-Vega Diversity System, in concert up until 1985 when he switched to another inferior digital unit. It would coincide with AC/DC’s darkest days creatively.
Says Schaffer: ‘From what I understand from the AC/DC “fan fans” he never sounded the same’.
The two lost contact.
Ken Schaffer is a friend and confidant of some very famous people. He custom-built the Sardonyx guitar John Lennon used on Double Fantasy. Sting wrote the song ‘Russians’ for The Dream of the Blue Turtles album while watching Russian TV with Schaffer at Columbia University. (The restless and curious Schaffer, an inveterate Russophile, had invented a satellite tracking system to intercept Russian signals.)
But Schaffer ‘got barricaded everywhere’ trying to reconnect with AC/DC.
In 2014, however, he got his wish in Vancouver when Angus picked up a bunch of Schaffer’s wireless guitar units — now rebooted as the Schaffer Replica by his Italian-American friend Filippo Olivieri of SoloDallas.com — for AC/DC’s Rock Or Bust world tour.
He was told in a letter beforehand by ‘someone in management’ to ‘wash your hands, shake hands, 10 minutes, hand him the gift and get out’ but ‘in the end, everybody walked out feeling higher and better for it. [Angus’s wife] Ellen made dinner for us. The ten minutes turned out to be three and a half hours.’
Schaffer tried to do the same thing with his old heroin-hooked pal Steven Tyler of Aerosmith — without much success.
‘We used to drag race our cars on the Sprain Brook Parkway in Yonkers before it was officially open to traffic. Steve and I are, like, from childhood. But to try to get through to him now, well, come on, you know. Impossible. What’s happened to celebrityism or whatever it is, or just richpeopleism, to get to somebody who’s even a close friend, was a childhood best friend, you’ve got to go through 30 people whose job it is to say no… to reconnect is almost impossible. I can do it but, you know, whatever the fuck. And now he’s become like a Kardashian.’
He ended up meeting Tyler again at The Bottom Line nightclub in Manhattan.
‘I get down there and there’s Steve in a corner and around him were two or three layers of guys who are six-foot-four and you even approach, you know, like, you’re already feeling the pain. But I was able to wave something in the air that caught Steve’s eye. [Impersonates Tyler] “Keeennny!” It was like the Red Sea parting.’
In the mid-1970s, Schaffer had been busy on the New York social hustings since ‘paralleling’ out of handling publicity for clients such as Jimi Hendrix and Steven Tyler to becoming a full-time electronics inventor. It had been a hobby of his since the age of nine.
In the words of New York’s Village Voice, Schaffer was ‘hustling his latest invention, a cordless instrument system’ in hot Manhattan clubs such as Trax, frequented by John Belushi, James Taylor, Led Zeppelin, Ted Nugent, Mick Jagger, Al Pacino, Peter Frampton and Stephen Stills.
The Schaffer-Vega Diversity System promised musicians — vocalists and guitarists alike — it would ‘eliminate the gruesome possibility of on-stage electrocution’.
Schaffer brought his first wireless microphone, which he’d invented in 1975, to Trax and ‘I handed it to [John] Belushi, who was there with Dan Aykroyd, they were The Blues Brothers, and they would stand on top of the bar and do a set with the wireless. Nobody had ever seen, you know, running around like that kind of shit. They went up the stairs to the street, ’cause Trax was downstairs in the basement, still singing and doing shit. We had a lot of bands doing stuff like that.’
He says he personally delivered ‘seven, ten units’ to Atlantic Studios over on 60th Street between Broadway and Central Park West. The Rolling Stones got their hands on them.
‘There’s Woody and Keith, Wyman and Jagger. They were so freaked out over having this wireless on their guitars and shit that they had the humpers [roadies] put the amps in the windows facing the street and they all went downstairs into the street and The Rolling Stones were walking up 60th Street.
‘It’s a short block. They were walking up and down that short block to Central Park to Broadway to Central Park to Broadway, playing, and the sound would come out of the second-floor windows. Nobody noticed. Not one car slowed down. I mean, only in New York. Man, the fucking Rolling Stones walking down the street [laughs].’
Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards of Chic would do a similar thing on 60th Street.
The first actual delivery of the wireless transmitter (some free prototype units) was to Jeff Lynne of ELO at a ‘blimp hangar’ in London, where the English band was doing rehearsals, because ‘they were such fans of what my vision was’.
But the first commercial order came from Kiss in 1976. Gene Simmons came over to Schaffer’s apartment and Schaffer did his pitch, talking up the staging possibilities of his new invention.
‘Gene’s looking at me like, “What the fuck are you talking about?” He was not interested. The staging possibilities did not trigger his imagination at all.’
One night three weeks later, close to midnight, Simmons called from Lakeland, Florida.
‘You still doing the radio guitar thing, Kenny?’
‘You still doing that? We gotta get some.’
‘Well, gee, what happened, Gene?’
What had happened is that guitarist Ace Frehley, on top of a multi-level stage made out of metal pipes at the Civic Center on 12 December 1976, had held on to a pipe and been severely electrocuted. He’d fallen and had to be revived with oxygen.
‘Guitarists get shocks all the time,’ says Schaffer. ‘Poor Ace got knocked out. So Gene ordered a bunch of ’em… but it was for safety, not for staging whatsoever.’
Wireless technology has gone on to transform the rock business but Schaffer has not wildly profited from it.
‘I didn’t patent the wireless guitar. My greatest asset and my greatest liability is I make the best fucking thing money can buy. And I don’t look at the taxi meter on the price.’
Schaffer produced only small quantities of his product, which sold for US$4400 a pop — a lot of money in the 1970s.
‘I just did things that supported my own, like, fascination and shit.’
But he discovered it complemented the tone of Angus’s famous cherry-red Gibson SG; a pleasant accident.
‘It just does some amazing shit to the sound of a guitar — and to a bass, holy crap.’
Any kinks in Angus’s transmitter, of course, would be ironed out. There would be no more on-stage electrocutions for Angus when AC/DC performed.
‘I work up so much sweat I’ve had dozens of shocks when I’ve stood on amps or tried to pick up a can of Coke off one and found the amp, the can and me all stuck together and shaking,’ AC/DC’s enigmatic lead guitarist told UK music newspaper Sounds in 1977. ‘In Detroit just before I got [Schaffer’s] radio [transmitter] I was booted all over the stage by shocks whenever I touched Bon [Scott] or got near a cable. But with this thing there’s no chance of getting hurt.’
The rest is history. Today, an AC/DC concert without Angus and his wireless guitar is unthinkable.
‘When [Schaffer] finally got it fixed right he ran round the club jumping on tables, then ran out into the street shaking people’s hands and yelling, “It works, it works.” He’s an absolute nutcase.’
Jesse Fink is the author of Bon: The Last Highway: The Untold Story of Bon Scott and AC/DC’s Back In Black, which will be released internationally in November and is available for preorder now at Amazon. Photographs courtesy of Ken Schaffer and Solo Dallas.